Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Carson points the way but petty unionists go the other

Dividing lines: Sir Edward Carson still casts a shadow over unionist leaders such as Mike Nesbitt

We are left to ponder another of life's little unionist mysteries: why did Mike Nesbitt sack John McCallister?

Mr Nesbitt is in danger of becoming the new uber-lieutenant of unionism, dispatching those with whom he has a problem to the political wilderness, or to an X Factor-type boot-camp in the bowels of Stormont to ensure that everyone sings to his tune.

On the face of it, Mr McCallister can claim his spot in the Guinness Book of Political Records as the first deputy leader of a party to lose his job while seemingly giving total and unequivocal support to his leader's policies.

He says he was merely voicing his concern that people like me and other media commentators believe the Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists are "sleepwalking" towards a unified party. Hardly a hanging offence - especially since it happens to be true.

There was a time when Peter Robinson was the unionist uber-lieutenant, brooking no dissent, biting and snarling at us journalists at every opportunity.

Not anymore. In his twilight years as First Minister, Mr Robinson is now the epitome of sweetness and light in contrast to the leader of the Ulster Unionists.

The remaining members of that party should be warned: dare you frown at your leader and you could be gone in the time it takes to lay a wreath at Edward Carson's statue.

Speaking of which, what if the ghost of Carson returned to haunt us all today? What if the great man stopped pointing his finger at the heavens over Stormont, directing his attention instead - and a few pertinent questions - towards Messrs Robinson and Nesbitt?

Since both parties claim Sir Edward Carson as founding father, might he wonder what today's unionist leaders had in common when they stood side-by-side at the historic table in Belfast City Hall upon which he signed the Covenant, or if their proximity was only a political sham.

To understand the answer, he would need a history lesson in the past five decades; from Terence O'Neill to Mike Nesbitt, from Ian Paisley to Peter Robinson.

He would need to know that some prominent Ulster Unionists are now leading Democratic Unionists, but also that memories run deep.

That when Ulster Unionists look at the DUP, the spectre of old guard Protestant Unionist Paisleyism is still visible.

So where stands unionism now? Divided and certainly not united, yet the two main parties appear to have more in common than at any time in nearly half a century of acrimonious rivalry.

With every day that passes, the DUP becomes more Ulster Unionist. When Peter Robinson says he wants an end to 'them-and-us', he is not talking about unionist differences.

Like Mike Nesbitt, Mr Robinson is now big into pluralism. The race is on to see which party can persuade Catholics to vote for them, though the prospects remain poor.

Messrs Robinson and Nesbitt appear to be heading in the same, moderate direction - if only at a different pace.

The more both seek the same middle ground of unionism, the more difficult it becomes to see any light between them.

Electoral results in recent years suggest that the case for separate parties is not as clear-cut as it once was.

Opinion polls of unionist voters reveal continued division is not what they want. No more DUP. No more UUP. Just one big party.

If Carson were around today, he might therefore ask: what's stopping the formation of an amalgamated party calling itself the Democratic Ulster Unionists or, perhaps, simply The Union Party?

The answer is that the debate goes on.

A variety of reasons are given for separateness, ranging from old, unsettled scores and inter-party personality clashes to fears that one monolithic unionist party might lead to one monolithic nationalist party.

However, the most obvious answer is that unionist politics in the Northern Ireland of 2012 are all about preserving party power and position. Forget united unionism in 1912. The reality is that today's Ulster Unionists want to have their own party and the Democratic Unionists want to have theirs, no matter how little the differences between them.

It's not rocket science. It doesn't require any political wizardry. It's as starkly, some might say as selfishly, simple as that, behind Sir Edward Carson's broad back as he points to the sky over Stormont from his wreath-laden statue.

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